Sadi Khan’s new London Plan has finally been signed off by communities secretary Robert Jenrick, more than four years after the first draft of the planning blueprint for the capital emerged from City Hall – and it’s definitely the worse for wear.
The pandemic has taken its toll on the process, of course, as well as posing new challenges for urban planners, but the Plan has also been marked by significant political intervention, carving away at Khan’s original vision.
Back in October 2016, in what now seems like a different world, the then newly-elected Mayor set out his intentions in his “City for All Londoners” prospectus: “A strong, global, open city, which draws out the positives of population growth to serve the needs of all Londoners – for decent and affordable housing, a good transport service, a clean and green environment and access to good jobs, opportunities and world-class culture.”
Some key planning themes were emerging too: accepting and accommodating population growth, meeting London’s housing need within the capital’s borders, protecting the Green Belt and industrial space, and focusing development not only on large, often post-industrial “opportunity” areas, but also around transport hubs and small sites in Outer London.
FLESH ON THE BONES
The Plan took shape between 2017 and August 2018, ahead of what became a key stage in its evolution, “examination in public” by senior planning inspectors.
The need for more homes was now centre stage, resulting in a challenging target of 649,350 new homes over 10 years – 40,000 a year on large sites and 24,500 a year on small sites. It was so challenging, in fact, that, as the draft Plan made clear, the “overall average rate of housing delivery on both large and small sites will need to approximately double compared to current average completion rates”.
Cue the “battle of the suburbs”, with boroughs challenging their small site targets and the draft’s restrictive Green Belt rules, others attacking its “no net loss” policy on designated industrial floorspace, and the London School of Economics going so far as to describe the overall target as “pure fantasy” in the absence of clear plans to turn potential capacity into actual delivery.
THE INSPECTORS’ VERDICT
After some 12 weeks of public hearings between January and June 2019, the inspectors backed the Plan’s critics, concluding that Khan’s aspirations would require a “massive” uplift in new home delivery which was “highly unlikely to occur based on the available evidence”.
Recommending that the 10-year target be cut to 52,000 a year, the inspectors were particularly critical of the Mayor’s small sites targets. Accepting them would be “setting the Plan up to fail,” they said, noting that they would entail increased housebuilding of more than 250 per cent in outer London, and a 700 per cent uplift in Bexley alone.
After some initial sparring, and perhaps with an eye to the approaching mayoral election, then still scheduled for May 2020, Khan backed down. His revised version of the Plan, submitted for ministerial approval in December 2019, agreed the new target, dropped small sites targets altogether and formally removed a presumption in favour of “densification” in Outer London.
JENRICK v KHAN
Jenrick’s eventual, and unprecedently hard-hitting response certainly had more than a whiff of electioneering about it, with its timing making it unlikely that the Plan would be finalised before the election.
Khan had failed to demonstrate the “tough choices necessary to bring enough land into the system to build the homes needed”, harming the “economic success” of London and leading to “worsening affordability” for Londoners, the minister wrote.
His solution was to impose a set of new directions for Khan – to scrap protections for industrial land, boost “dwelling mix” requirements for family homes, provide for “gentle” density development only in town centres, and even to allow more car parking spaces in Outer London schemes – as well as calling on Khan to start a new, more ambitious Plan as soon as his current version was signed off.
It was a significant assault on mayoral powers, with some commentators calling it effectively a ministerial takeover of the Plan and its targets, and it kicked off almost 12 months of attrition and delay, particularly as focus turned to the Covid crisis.
With the rescheduled mayoral election approaching, Khan broke the deadlock just before Christmas with a threat to publish the Plan regardless – a threat met almost instantly with two further ministerial demands.
Firstly, Jenrick moved to further weaken the protection the Plan had given to industrial land, particularly where boroughs were faced with the possibility of having to release Green Belt or protected Metropolitan Open Land for housing, and secondly directed new rules allowing boroughs to restrict the development of tall buildings, also redefined down from 10 storeys (or 30 metres) to six storeys (or 18 metres).
A City Hall statement last week indicated Khan’s acquiescence and Jenrick’s subsequent approval, confirmed by publication of the minister’s letter to the Mayor greenlighting the Plan, 13 months after receiving the final draft.
Khan “hailed” the Plan’s approval, arguing that the lengthy delay had “done real harm to confidence in key industries and among Londoners…including the work to build more homes”.
Pressure had undoubtedly been mounting from borough planners and developers alike, who are reliant on the Plan’s statutory frameworks to guide decision-making and investment.
The agreement does provide that certainty, for a period, until the government’s new approach to housebuilding target-setting kicks in in five years’ time, setting a fresh target for London of 93,579 new homes a year – a challenge described appositely as “heroic” by planning consultants Lichfields.
And while the minister can point to the need to “dramatically increase the capital’s housing delivery” as a clear electoral message that the Mayor’s housing performance has so far fallen short, there are conflicting signals in the outcome.
The final Plan, following Jenrick’s interventions, not only fails to match up to City Hall estimates of housing need but also restricts growth across the city as a whole, as well as in the Green Belt. And the limited protection now afforded to industrial sites could see more businesses moving out of London at the same time as encouraging “brownfield” development.
The four-year journey of the Khan London Plan suggests that the solution to the challenge it posed back in 2017 – the city’s “growth in population and jobs has not been matched by the growth in the number and type of homes London needs” – remains elusive. And how well will the Plan match up to the post-pandemic “new normal”? That’s another question entirely.
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